First Blood (1982) Is Awesome

first blood poster Before talking about how much I enjoyed First Blood, I want to talk a little bit about my history with the character of Rambo. As a kid growing up in the 80s, you could not escape this huge idea of the character. I don’t remember when I saw the movies, but I knew there was this bandana-wearing dude running around shirtless shooting people and wielding a big knife. He. Was. Awesome.

Part of the reason I knew about the character, aside from just living in the world at that time, because they heavily marketed this guy for kids, which is funny when you think about the fact that the violent franchise is built around a Vietnam vet with PTSD. There was a 65 episode cartoon called Rambo: The Force Of Freedom. That series also spawned a line of action figures which I will feature in next week’s Toy Commercial Tuesday (plug!).  I definitely had one of the shirtless, black pants action figures, but think I lost it or someone swiped it. I should have gone on a Rambo-like rampage until I got it back, but that’s tough to do when your 7 or whatever.

I mention all of that because the version of Rambo that lived in my head for so long doesn’t really match up to the character seen in the first film. When I finally got around to watching First Blood for the first time in high school, I was confused and lost interest. “Why’s Rambo just walking around like a guy? Why isn’t he blowing anything up? Eh, what’s on the internet.” A week or so back I got a hankering to watch the movie again, but it wasn’t on Netflix Instant so I scoped it out on Amazon and discovered they were having a big sale on the box set, so I got myself a little birthday present.

While I’m not sure how great the BR conversion is (some of the blacks looked pretty spotty), this movie really is beautiful. Director Ted Kotcheff really took advantage of the Washington setting and made sure to grab wide sweeping shots of the landscape. I don’t know if it was his intent, but I got the feeling that part of the emotional heart of this story was to juxtapose the beauty of the location with the ugliness of assumption and violence that it winds up being the backdrop for.

And really, this is an emotional movie on many levels. You’ve obviously got the emotional states and responses by the main characters the fuel the thing: Brian Dennehy’s assumptions about the kind of person Rambo is leads to a lot of the trouble, while the combined crap of Rambo’s life lead him to head back into town instead of just leaving like he easily could have. More than that, though, you really feel what Rambo went through (as much as anyone who hasn’t gone through a war can do so). I’ve seen plenty of movies revolving around the Vietnam War and every time I do, I’m reminded of how terrible people were to the returning soldiers. These are guys who either by their own choice or thanks to the draft were put into a system that’s designed to turn you into a killer (or at the very least, a person with the skills to kill), sent to a faraway place with little to no support, immersed in death and killing and then expected to come back home and integrate into society? That’s the plight of every soldier, but it was rougher for the Vietnam vets because, unlike their WWII brethren, they didn’t get parades or cheers, but instead angry protesters and jeers. I’m amazed that any of those guys were able to come back and be productive — or at the very least non-destructive — members of society.

So there’s a lot of that in this film; a lot of heart and a lot of anger. But the action scenes are also really solid. You’ve got everything from the car/motorcycle chase into the woods and the helicopter coming after Rambo to Rambo’s town-centric rampage. This dude’s not messing around and has certainly been pushed too far.

One of the interesting aspects of this film is that it’s very gray when it comes to morality. You want to root for Rambo because he’s been through so much, but does he really need to take his war into town where civilians can be hurt? No, not really. And, at the heart of things, Dennehy’s character really does have the town’s best interested at heart even if this all started because he couldn’t get past a guy’s long hair and general scruffiness. If memory serves, the three other Rambo films don’t have much of this in that Rambo’s sent into a place where his mission is to kill the bad guys — and they’re often really, really bad guys as is the case in 2008’s Rambo — but in this original film, he’s up against a bunch of townspeople who are just trying to keep their home safe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that even if their motivations are based on misinformation.

It’s not often that I come away from an action movie both pumped up from the action scenes and thinking about something. I like when that happens, just not all the time. Too much thinking about these things tends to lead to feeling bad about the usually catastrophic level of death and violence featured in these movies.

I Watch A Lot Of Documentaries: Dalekmania, American Grindhouse, Trumbo & Mayor Of The Sunset Strip

I Watch A Lot Of Movies will most likely be a recurring feature here on the blog because it’s a plain fact. Because I work from home and I like to have something on to either watch or listen to while I do so, I go through a lot of movies, shows, podcasts and records. Sometimes I give them their own write-ups, but sometimes I don’t have as much to say. So, IWALOM will be a kind of catch-all for the things I want to say a few words on. As it happens, I’ve been on a bit of a documentary going back to when I watched and wrote about Too Tough To Die and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop a few weeks ago.

One of the more curious documentaries I’ve seen on Netflix Instant has to be Dalekmania (1995) which I assumed would be about the history of the Doctor Who baddies. Instead, as the subtitle explains, it’s actually the story of Daleks and the Doctor on the big screen. Back in 1965 Peter Cushing starred as a tweaked version of the character in a big screen flock that remade one of the few serials I’ve actually seen: The Daleks.

Much like the 1996 Fox-produced Doctor Who movie, the movie and it’s sequel, the awesomely named Invasion Earth: 2015, neither film is in cannon, but that doesn’t mean they don’t look interesting. Seeing a documentary based on a pair of films I’ve never seen was cool because it’s not like I had heard any of these stories before. The downside? The movies aren’t on any kind of Netflix so I can’t check them out, which is a little frustrating. It seems like everyone involved (and living) was interviewed and you also get to see a cool collection of Dalek and Who memorabilia from a husband and wife collector team. Worth checking out for Who fans even if they don’t HAVE to know about these flicks.

I was kind of disappointed by American Grindhouse (2010), especially after being so impressed by essentially the Australian version of this doc called Not Quite Hollywood. While Not Quite really seemed to just jump in and celebrate their schlocky movies, Grindhouse seems to take an almost clinical approach which saps some of the fun out of the proceedings.  A big contributor to that feeling is how specifically they define “grindhouse.’ Instead of being about low budget movies sent to drive ins or cheap theaters, we’re told that an actual grindhouse was a theater that would never shut down or stop showing movies. Uh, okay. It’s the equivalent of someone telling you in great detail that what you’re blowing your nose in isn’t actually a Kleenex, but a facial tissues.

The opposite side of the specificity coin is that you actually get treated to lots of different kinds of movies than you might expect, going all the way back to the early days of film. The movie points out that, almost as soon as people figured out how to use movie cameras, they started pointing them at naked ladies. I actually learned this in either high school or college and was blown away at the time because you kind of assume that everything was super prudey back in the day, but in reality people are people and are always curious about things like that.

The film also boasts a quality group of talking heads including John Landis, Joe Dante, William Lustig and plenty of others. Everyone brings something interesting to the table, it’s just a broader table than I was expecting when I turned it on.

I probably wouldn’t have given a movie called Trumbo (2007) if not for the awesome image on this poster. A dude writing in the bathtub? I love it! The story found in the documentary is even more interesting. Dalton Trumbo was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, a group of writers who were blacklisted for communist leanings thanks to McCarthy and the ridiculous red scare. He wrote movies like The Devil’s Playground, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, Johnny Got His Gun and plenty of others, some of which were credited to other writers who fronted for him and some of the other Hollywood Ten.

The doc has an interesting style that takes many of Trumbo’s writings and has famous actors do dramatic readings. I didn’t realize what was happening at first when people like Michael Douglas, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti and others started doing these monologues in dark rooms, I was confused, but I soon caught on and enjoyed the method. Apparently, this film is based on the stage play of one of Trumbo’s  sons, which makes that all make a lot more sense.

I like that Trumbo never lost faith or face, really, kept writing and later on didn’t seem too bitter about what happened. He definitely answered some questions with a sharp wit, but he didn’t seem bitter, which is inspiring considering the mountains of bullshit heaped upon him.

Like a lot of things on Netflix,  I didn’t really know what Mayor Of The Sunset Strip (2003). For some reason I thought it was about a guy who was influential in the 80s metal scene on the Sunset Strip. It’s actually about Rodney Binginheimer, a dude who started out as a groupie in the 60s, met practically every rock star, got nicknamed in a Beach Boys song, became one of the most influential DJs in music history and is still kicking.

I found this story so fascinating because Bingenheimer is ridiculously damaged. Yes, he’s met every single important rock and roll musician since the medium was practically invented and yes he has (or at least had) a great deal of power in his business, but he is also a sad, lonely man with mom issues. The portrait painted is that of a man who prefers not to be in the spotlight, but absolutely expects to be just on the fringes now. It’s also the story of a man whose time as come and gone, though that’s not the main focus. Towards the end of the movie, the man with ridiculous hair tells the camera that he’s only got one night a week as a DJ on KROQ which clearly bums him out. The only time he expresses any real, obvious emotions happens in a scene where his radio protege finishes a show and Bingenheimer is pissed because he thinks the younger man has basically stolen his entire schtick.

For me, Mayor has two lessons to be learned. First, it shows me that anyone can become important. There was nothing truly special about Rodney Bingenheimer, nothing that would make him an obvious maven of a culture movement. But, he physically got himself where he needed to be and worked his way up to becoming ridiculously influential. That’s the American dream, right? Well, the second lesson shows what can happen if you don’t balance your life out. Even with all his power and influence, something about his personality didn’t allow him to capitalize on it too much and he has essentially faded out of prominence. The lesson is to both keep working even after reaching prominence, but also that all the importance in the world doesn’t fix your problems. You’ve got to work on that stuff on your own and it didn’t seem to me like Bingenheimer has done that.

NYC & LA Movie Marathon: 7 Movies From Both Cities

I watch a LOT of movies. More so than usual since I’m unemployed/work from home. Netflix really has become my closest friend which is both sad and technologically impressive. Anyway, I like to watch movies or shows while I work on freelance, which means I’m not always giving them 100% of my attention, but enough to do a series of mini-reviews. I’ve been trying to figure out some thematic similarities between the movies I’ve been watching (like the otherwise unrelated Dr. Horrible and Angel of Death from the other day). It wasn’t until I was watching Last Action Hero today which takes place in both New York City and Los Angeles that I realized that a big chunk of the movies I’ve watched recently are set in one or the other. So, what the hell? Even though they’re mostly unrelated, here’s a look at seven movies I’ve watched in the last few weeks set in these places. Hit the jump for the incredibly entertaining reviews.

First up, New York, both because it’s a place I’m semi-familiar with and it contains the movie I watched first.

F/X (1986)
As long time United Monkees know, I watched F/X 2 a little over a year ago and had a great time with it. It was a fun little action movie that didn’t seem to take itself too seriously and had fun with the concept. The original is a bit more straightforward and intense that I was expecting, with Cocktail’s Bryan Brown taking on an assignment from the government to make it look like a mobster (Jerry Orbach) gets killed so he can testify. Turns out he gets double crossed and things go downhill from there. Brian Dennehy still stars as the one guy trying to help Brown’s character and the two team-up to take out the bad guys and win the day, using plenty of Brown’s special effects tricks. It’s a cool movie, but definitely not as fun as the sequel.

RIGHTEOUS KILL (2008)
Not only do Righteous Kill and F/X share a common setting in the form of NYC, but they also share something in the form of awesome actor Brian Dennehy. In this case he plays lieutenant to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. This review absolutely contains SPOILERS, so if you don’t want the movie ruined, skip to The Muppets Take Manhattan. Anyway, the whole plot of this movie revolves around De Niro’s seeming confession to being this killer of guys who fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system. We even have video footage of him confessing. But, it turns out that the video is Pacino making him read his (Pacino’s) diary. See, throughout the movie, they’re only referred to by their nicknames, so when De Niro reads a real name, we don’t actually know who it is. I found the twist to be a fairly interesting one that would probably make sense on further viewings (less High Tension and more Usual Suspects). Personally I liked watching these two veterans working together in a fairly tight script that brings in the talents of 50 Cent, Dennehy, John Leguizamo, Donnie Wahlberg and Carla Gugino. Definitely worth the NetBox watch in my opinion.

THE MUPPETS TAKES MANHATTAN (1984)
I must admit, I’m not a huge Muppets fan. That’s not to say I don’t like them, I just don’t have the history with them that a lot of people my age seem to. My only childhood memory of them is from Muppet Babies. After that? The video they did with Weezer. So, it was kind of on a whim that I watched The Muppets Take Manhattan on NetBox and I had a great time with it. The story follows Kermit and the Muppet gang who are fresh out of college (seems like that would make a great movie premise itself) and taking their show to New York to get it on Broadway. After several failed attempts to get the show made, Kermit kind of blows up at his friends who all decide he would be better off if they told him they got other jobs and moved away. This leaves Kermit in NYC, working in a diner and still trying to get the show made. He, of course, succeeds eventually, only to get in an accident that leaves him with amnesia and taking a job as an ad exec, Mad Men-style. I had a ridiculous amount of fun watching this flick and trying to figure out if I’d ever been to the parts of the city Kermit was walking around (I’m guessing so, though the place has changed quite a bit in 25 years). I also really enjoyed the flashback that spawned Muppet Babies. It made a lot of things make sense. Now, I’ve got to check out the rest of the movies.

KRUSH GROOVE (1985)
Holy crap, I loved this movie. I just watched it today (well, yesterday at this point in the early morning) and had so much fun with it. See, it’s a fictionalized history of Def Jam records back in the 80s, but starring a ton of their artists like Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Rick Rubin, Sheila E., the Beastie Boys and New Edition among others. I only really started exploring hip hop within the last five or six years, but that exploration has heavily included Run-DMC and the Beasties. I also had a couple Fat Boys tapes back when I was a kid (I’m guessing around the time they got huge, musically speaking, because I vaguely recognized a track or two in the movie from those tapes). That combined with my fairly recent viewing of VH1’s 2009 Hip Hop Honors which focused on Def Jam really made this movie interesting for me. There’s a lot going on in a fairly limited amount of time, but I feel like the director did a good job of balancing the main storyline of Run-DMC thinking of jumping form the Krush Groove label and the B-story of the Fat Boys trying to make it big. If you’re interested in early hip hop at all, this is a must-watch flick. I was also surprised to find out that director Michael Shultz also directed past UM reviewed movie Car Wash and a few movies I didn’t get around to reviewing like the epic Last Dragon (SO awesome) and Cooley High (surprisingly depressing).

New York To LA and Back

LAST ACTION HERO (1993)
The movie that inspired this entire entry starts off with a kid in NYC who loves Arnold Schwarzenegger movies getting sucked into movie-LA and eventually bringing the fictional Jack Slater back into the real world. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I really loved this movie. I remember watching it with my grandparents back around the time it came out on video and thinking it was kind of dumb. But, see, now I’ve seen most of the movies it tries to spoof and had a much better time with it (I’m guessing my grandparents also thought it was dumb, but I bet they never said anything). The kid calls out all kinds of late-80s, early-90s action movie cliches, trying to convince Slater that he’s living in a movie. What I like is that all aspects of the story are interesting and I guess the credit for that goes to world renowned scriptwriter William Goldman (whose book of scripts including Butch & Sundance, Misery, Marathon Man & The Princess Bride is sitting mostly unread on my shelf) who came in and did a rewrite after Arnold insisted on it. Credit should also be given to Die Hard and Predator director John McTiernan who did a great job of mixing the comic and action elements. Sure, the kid’s acting can be a bit thin at times and maybe over-the-top, but I think it works, especially (maybe only) if you’re a fan of these kinds of movies. Oh, it also features a cartoon cat voiced by Danny Devito, how can you go wrong?!

Now On To LA

SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991)
After watching several movies about cops getting new partners (Dragnet, The Rookie, Lethal Weapon (the latter two soon to be reviewed on their own), it’s funny how similar they end up. This one has dandy Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee teaming up to take down crime in LA’s Little Tokyo. Soon enough, something minor leads them to something huge and our heroes have to put a stop to it. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to this one, but I still enjoyed the weird aesthetic of it. See, Lundgren loves Asian culture, while Lee only knows martial arts because his mom made him take lessons and otherwise doesn’t care. When I was a kid I always got this one confused with Big Trouble In Little China. That doesn’t really mean anything, I guess. On another note, Wayne’s World’s Tia Carrere also stars in this movie. On another nother note, the director Mark L. Lester also directed the more-fun Class of 1999 and Commando.

ALIEN NATION (1988)
Hey, guess what? I’ve had a surprising amount of luck watching movies lately. Case in point? Alien Nation. I added a few sci-fi movies including this one a while ago and decided to give this one a shot. I remember seeing the TV series randomly syndicated when I was a kid watching late-night TV but had never seen the movie, which stars James Caan and Chicago Hope’s Mandy Patinkin. Kind of like V, Alien Nation is based around an alien race that is welcomed to earth and begins to be integrated into society, though basic stereotypes still exist. These aliens were bread to be slaves though. Like with Showdown, this movies focuses on cop Caan being saddled with Newcomer (that’s what they call the aliens) Patinkin. As the two learn about each other, they find out about a much bigger plot to addict the Newcomers to drugs and have to put a stop to it. I really liked James Caan in this flick. I guess I haven’t seen him in too many things, but I liked his every man approach. I haven’t seen a ton of his movies, but this made me want to do so. It also made me add the TV series to my Netflix queue, though I was it was on instant watch. I don’t have incredibly high hopes because it got canceled after one season, but it did spawn a number of TV movies. Anyone familiar with them?

So, that ends my cinematic tour of NYC and LA, though I’m sure I’ll see another movie or two set in one of those places before the end of the week. I’ve enjoyed my brief stay and wish I would have taken more pictures, but what are you gonna do?